May 27, 2003

Sonnet $9.95

by Gilbert Allen

TUESDAY, 27 MAY 2003
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Poem: "Sonnet $9.95," by Gilbert Allen from Driving to Distraction (Orchisis).

Sonnet $9.95

An Arrow knit shirt, regular eighteen-
fifty, a kitten from the animal
shelter, eight pounds of hamburger, cheap jeans,
a rose bush with bare roots, a cardboard doll

house without the doll, five minutes of
Wanda, a watch, sixteen quarts of milk,
three good books, two books, one book of love
poems (with pictures), half a shoe, one silk

tie, a royal breakfast, a decent lunch,
supper in Rock Hill, a laugh from a mechanic,
thirteen light bulbs, a toaster, a small bunch
of odd flowers, enough candy to get sick,

a month of newspapers, nine gallons of gas,
a fully illustrated Leaves of Grass.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of detective novelist Dashiell Hammett, born in St. Mary's County, Maryland (1894). His style of writing was called "hard-boiled" and it contained almost no extraneous detail. In one story, he described a woman by writing, "Her eyes were blue, her mouth red, her teeth white, and she had a nose. Without getting steamed up over the details, she was nice." Critics consider The Maltese Falcon (1930) to be his masterpiece. The novel introduced the character Sam Spade, one of the most famous fictional detectives of all time.

It's the birthday of novelist John Barth, born in Cambridge, Maryland (1930). He's the author of novels such as The Floating Opera (1956) and The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (1991).

It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer John Cheever, born in Quincy, Massachusetts (1912). As a child, his grade school teacher let him tell stories to the class if the children had been good. He was his parents' second child, and his mother told him that if she hadn't drunk two manhattans one afternoon, he never would have been born. His father was a hard-drinking shoe salesman and an unpredictable man. One night, while setting the table, Cheever's mother casually mentioned that she and his father had gotten into a fight, and his father had decided to drown himself at the local beach. Though he didn't have a driver's license, Cheever jumped in the family car and drove to the beach as fast as he could. He found his father drunk, riding a roller coaster, and had to coax him down and bring him home. In the spring of his junior year, Cheever was expelled from prep school for poor grades. He wrote a story about it called "Expelled" (1930), and it was published in The New Republic magazine. He moved to New York and visited Malcolm Cowley, the editor who had accepted the story. Cowley invited him to a party, where Cheever, trying to look sophisticated, drank too many cocktails. He thanked the hostess, rushed out into the apartment hallway, and threw up on the wallpaper. Cowley didn't mind, and introduced him to the literary society of New York. Cheever struggled to write his first novel, which he hoped would get him out of debt. When he finally finished it, he said to the editor, "You may think there are too many smells in the book, and I just want you to know I'm not going to take any of them out. I am a very olfactory fellow." The novel, called The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), won the National Book Award and became a Book-of-the-Month selection. He went on to write many other novels and collections of short stories, and won the Pulitzer Prize for The Stories of John Cheever (1978). Cheever kept journals for his entire life, and he arranged with his son to have the journals published after his death. The Journals of John Cheever came out in 1991. In the book, Cheever wrote about his struggles with alcoholism, adultery and depression, but he always comes back to nature and the weather, which comforted him. He wrote, "Weeding the peony hedge I hear the windfalls in the orchard; hear them strike the ground, hear them strike against branches as they fall to the ground. The immemorial smell of apples, old as the sea. Mary makes jelly. Up from the kitchen, up the stairs and into all the rooms comes the smell of apples."

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